Las Vegas news media scene remains weak

Las Vegas news mediaSee update at end of story

I’ll give the Las Vegas Review-Journal credit for a big mea culpa. On Monday, it published a stunning story essentially admitting that 20 years ago it deep-sixed a story written by its court reporter that casino tycoon Steve Wynn faced allegations from employees of sex misconduct. The paper protected Wynn even though the 1998 claims were public record at the courthouse for anyone to see and thus immune from a valid defamation lawsuit by Wynn. On Tuesday, thanks to that coverage, which followed a blockbuster expose last month by The Wall Street Journal about many other alleged incidents of sexual misconduct by Wynn, he resigned his CEO and chairman posts at Wynn Resorts, all the while professing his complete innocence.

But who knows how many women could have escaped Wynn’s purported clutches had the Review-Journal properly done its job in 1998, or even at any point before this week? The reporter who dug up that story, and who kept her notes, is still on the paper; she’s an editor now. There also have been corporate ownership changes. But it still took the Review-Journal 10 days after the big Wall Street Journal scoop and months after the birth of the #MeToo movement to summon up the strength to do the right thing.

And it underscores what I have observed since becoming New To Las Vegas in 2016: The Las Vegas news media remains pretty weak when it comes to covering the news. A mile wide and a quarter-inch deep. From what I understand, this has been a problem in Las Vegas for a looooong time.

Indeed, perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the Review-Journal story about Wynn is the admission by then-publisher Sherman Frederick that he doesn’t remember killing the story about the Strip’s most prominent figure. To me, this suggests the paper routinely axed so many valid stories about important folks that this was journalistic business as usual in Las Vegas.

By far the largest Las Vegas news outlet, the Review-Journal, which sets the local journalism agenda, is now owned by the family of another billionaire casino mogul, Sheldon Adelson, who also is a political conservative, and a big-time Republican donor. These interests plainly color what the paper covers in its news pages, and how it’s done. Adelson, who in the past unsuccessfully sued a reporter for defamation, actually tried initially to hide his acquisition of the paper in 2015, paying the inflated price of $140 million for a paper with a daily circulation of around 80,000. (By contrast, founder Jeff Bezos two years earlier bought the prestigious, internationally prominent, five times larger Washington Post for $250 million, less than one-third the price per reader.) To me, the value to Adelson was not cash flow, but influence and, perhaps, control over what gets published–or not.

As a result, the paper’s credibility is pretty much shot locally when it comes to a lot of its coverage of politics, government, courts and gambling–which in Las Vegas is a good chunk of the news.The paper has bulked up its investigative reporting team, which has done some good work. But its influence is considerably undercut by repeated targets such as the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, operator of the Las Vegas Convention Center, which, with a public subsidy, competes directly with Adelson’s privately owned Sands Expo and Convention Center.

Even the paper’s late-in-the-game but legitimate coverage of Wynn and Wynn Resorts had the effect of weakening yet another direct business rival of Adelson.

The Review-Journal is compelled to run disclaimers at the end of some stories that the publication is owned by Adelson interests. The paper is feared but not particularly respected.

Then there is the separately owned Las Vegas Sun. It now is an inserted section in the Review-Journal under the Newspaper Preservation Act of 1970. This federal law grants an antitrust exemption to rival newspaper owners who with government permission combine their business sides under a joint operating agreement when one of them–in this case the Sun–is in danger of financial failure.

The problem here is that the Sun, long owned by the local Greenspun family and which espouses a more liberal outlook, runs virtually no local news or even editorials on local subjects. It fills its usual eight pages with stories from days-old issues of The New York Times. I subscribe to The Times, so what I’m getting from the Sun is stuff I already read, late. From what I see counting bylines and looking at the online staff directory, the Sun has remarkably few full-time news reporters despite its claim to be a daily newspaper. The Sun is neither feared nor respected; it is mainly ignored.

Las Vegas lacks an all-news radio station. One station, KDWN, owned by Beasley Media Group of Naples, Fla., bills itself as “news/talk.” But it’s really “talk/a little news,” since the programming features nationally syndicated talking heads like Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham and Mark Levin (all conservatives, although that is not my point) and a brief national news feed at the top of the hour. Local coverage is mainly weather and traffic reports. The station’s “News Team” page on its website doesn’t list even a single news reporter.

As a result of this news credibility void, “KNPR’s State of Nevada,” a daily hour-long current affairs show with highly competent producers and interviewers on the NPR affiliate here, KNPR, has unusual scope, influence and impact for a local radio news show. But even the station’s top-of-the-hour newscasts often carries one- and two-day old news sourced to Nevada newspapers.

In many large cities, alternative weeklies help flesh out the news scene with different and even refreshingly bitchy perspectives on public affairs. Not in Vegas. Las Vegas Weekly, which is owned by the Greenspuns, is a fluffy entertainment vehicle; its cover story last week was a story about mountain-climbing around Las Vegas.

I confess to not having a good grip on the local TV news situation here. I simply don’t watch much of it. But aside from crime, I rarely hear folks I encounter talk about something they saw on the local news, which makes me think the collective broadcast impact is minimal. However, I have found websites run by the various TV stations are often among the best sources for breaking local news.

Unlike some big cities, Las Vegas doesn’t have much of a free-standing online news environment. One notable exception is The Nevada Independent, a statewide nonpartisan nonprofit news site in 2017 by noted Nevada journalist Jon Ralston and largely funded with grant money. I have written for it. In its year of operation, the NVindy has developed a following among public servants and politicians, but not yet the general public.

Seattle, where I last lived before Las Vegas, has dozens of news blogs covering individual neighborhoods and posting stories multiple times a day. This adds notably to public information and awareness. I am unaware of even one such operation in Las Vegas. Meanwhile, the extent of the Vegas blogosphere–outlets such as what you’re reading right now–is scant.

Particularly at the Review-Journal, conflicts and hidden interests seem to go back awhile. In their 2001 book, The Money and the Power: The Making of Las Vegas and Its Hold on America, 1947-2000, Sally Denton and Roger Morris wrote that a long-time top editor of the paper had a secret interest in a mob-controlled casino. Coincidentally, much of the Las Vegas media poo-poohed for a long time the notion that the mob ran the casino industry, which it largely did from the mid-1940s until the 1980s. (Indeed, Hank Greenspun, who founded the Las Vegas Sun in 1950 and edited it until his death in 1989, got his Las Vegas start as a publicist for mobster Bugsy Siegel and his Flamingo Hotel & Casino.)

An example of how Review-Journal shaded things to suit its new owner’s interest can be found in coverage of plans to build a $1.9 billion domed football stadium to house the NFL’s Oakland Raiders, who will be moving here in several years. Initially, Adelson was going to finance about one-third of the stadium. But that was contingent on the state agreeing to finance another third with an increase in Las Vegas hotel taxes. That third would be among the highest government subsidies ever to build an area to benefit a privately owned sports team.

Despite a raging civic debate, Review-Journal coverage, and especially headlines and story placement, conveyed a decided sense of inevitability about the project. “Stadium awaits state approval,” an across-the-top-of-the-front-page headline screamed on September 16, 2016, after a Las Vegas-area panel green-lighted the project. The clear implication of the headline was false; the state was under no obligation to approve anything.

As it turned out, four months later, Adelson was completely squeezed out of the project–possibly because of NFL worries about his gambling interests–and another lender found. After that point, Review-Journal coverage became noticeably more skeptical. Still, the project was approved, hotel taxes were raised and the stadium is being built now for what will be the Las Vegas Raiders.

In Las Vegas, there is plenty of news. The problem is what doesn’t get reported properly, or at all.

UPDATE ON APRIL 16, 2018: The annual Pulitzer Prizes were announced today. The New York Times, which won three, was a finalist for a fourth in breaking news, for its coverage of the October 1 massacre in Las Vegas. The Las Vegas Review-Journal was nowhere to be found. That a newspaper in far-away New York could outhustle the locals on a breaking Las Vegas story when all had an equal start says volumes about the lackluster Las Vegas media scene and reinforces the point of this post.

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